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Burma Road Riot in the Bahamas

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The effects of the war were much more immediate and explosive than anyone in the government anticipated. Within a few weeks of Pearl Harbor, plans had been laid to make New Providence a major air base, for America, and upgrading the airport close to Nassau which Sir Harry Oakes had already donated to the government, and adding a even larger Satellite Field next to Lake Killarney at the western end of the island. The building contract was rewarded by the United States regime to the large Pleasantville Corporation. This brought in modern equipment and advertised for twenty-five hundred local laborers. This construction development assured a relative bonanza for the local jobless, a chance to sell their labor for something like the rates they knew were normal on the mainland – twelve shillings a day. Little did they know, behind their backs, the Bahamian government agreed to peg local wages for unskilled labor at the rates established in 1936: four shillings for an eight hour working day, despite wartime price rises. These rates was applied to semi-skilled as well as unskilled work, and labor gangs were placed under the direction of American or local nonwhite foremen but two white Bahamians, on the mistaken principle that they would know best how to control the black Bahamian workforce.
Organized blue-collared action certainly seemed doubtful. There was much to discuss since Charles Rhodriguez reactivated the unskilled workers’ labor union. They announced that the formation of the Federation of Labor would also represent skilled workers as well. A modestly attended public meeting was held on May, 22 1942, after which the union and federation executives drafted a petition with the help of their attorney, A.F. Adderly, calling for a minimum wage of eight shillings a day. The administration showed little concern, Governor Windsor left for an appointment in Washington May 28th. The following day, the petition was delivered to the labor officer and passed on to the acting governor, Leslie Heape, who made a vague statement that an advisory board would be appointed to consider the question of wages on what was already being called the Project. This assurance seems to have satisfied Rhodriguez and his fellow executives but not the workers. On Sunday, May 31st, a group of laborers at the Satellite Field went on strike. Karl Cambridge, one of the white supervisors, persuaded most to return to work. A small group remained behind, the leader was a young vocal Androsian named Leonard Green, also known as Storr, who had just joined the Project. When Storr attempted to call the other employees back to the strike, he was taken by the American field manager to the Pleasantville Corporation headquarters at Oakes Field, where under interrogation he asserted the obvious fact that it was impossible to live on four shillings a day. While Storr was being questioned, an increasingly angry group of about four hundred workers gathered outside, some yelling, “We want more money!”
None of the labor organizers was present, but when John Hughes appeared, the workers expressed two complaints: the inadequacy of the minimum daily wage and the unfairness of the system whereby they went unpaid when rain prevented them from working. Hughes convinced the upset workers that the problem will be dealt with as soon as possible and that everyone but the younger workers should go home.
The situation got worse when a detachment of four police officers, under the command of a white Bahamian Captain Edward Sears, confronted Storr and his group, and tried to disperse them by force. When the other workers noticed that Storr had a cut above his eye, they presumed that it had been inflicted by Captain Edward Sears and the situation took a turn for the worst. A car was overturned and the crowd was broken up only when Sears drew his revolver and fired it in the air.
Hughes was convinced that the workers could be calm downed. Having obtained agreement with the Pleasantville operators over pay for rainy days, he persuaded Rhodriguez, Adderly, and Dr. C.R. Walker, who was a black candidate for New Providence South in the upcoming election, to talk to the workers early on Monday morning June 1st, 1942. Adderly gave a brief speech to the Satellite Field workers at their transportation point on West Bay Street, calling for a return to work to “preserve harmony”, but they refused to move. At Oakes Field, where more than a thousand workers had gathered, Dr. Walker was even less successful, the men refusing to clock in and calling out, “No Work Today!”
Oblivious to the serious trouble brewing, the “labor representatives” left Oakes Field for their own workday. The crowd got larger and more excited, and the presence of Captain Sears and a police detachment made the matters worse. The crowd reached more than two thousand, and Sears sent for reinforcements. By that time, large groups of laborers, many equipped with sticks and machetes, had left the field and were marching north through the crowded Southern District towards downtown Nassau. As they went, they sand “patriotic” songs.
More volatile and disorganized than the traditional parades descending on Bay Street from Over the Hill, the laborers and their family supporters were still merely looking for someone in authority to whom to express their grievances and whom they might obtain some kind of satisfaction. Hundreds gathered in front of the colonial secretary’s office, where, instead of Leslie Heape, they were addressed at 9 A.M. by the expatriate attorney general, Eric Hallinan. He began to tell the angry mob about how the American authorities had been reluctant to employ Bahamian laborers and it had only been through the Duke’s intercession that they had work at all. This was misinterpreted as a threat that if they did not return docilely to work they would lose their jobs.
Within minutes, the crowd exploded, raging up and down Bay Street, breaking windows and looting stores. A parked Coca-Cola truck provided convenient projectiles. By noon, downtown was in shambles, though most of the horde had left the scene with their loot – cleared by the police and a detachment of Cameron Highlanders from garrison. The damage was not absolutely random; such shops as those owned by the Speaker of Assembly and the wife of one of the white Project supervisors were almost gutted, but the shoe store owned by Percy Christie, the white would-be labor organizer, was left untouched. Particular targets were white-owned liquor stores, the stock of which fueled the aggression of rougher elements in the crowd.
The reaction of the white administrators and Bay Street merchants was a mixture of shock and panic, while the colored middle class expressed shock and disowned the actions of the mob. Mary Moseley, a white supervisor at the Project, walked the streets until she was chased indoors. Many whites and parents came into town to rescue their children from Queen’s College. An angry “Delegation of Citizens,” including Roland Symonette, Speaker Asa Pritchard, and Stafford Sands, went to Government House, demanding more forceful action. Pritchard called Acting Governor Heape a fool and threatened that if nothing was done he would appeal directly to the military.
In fact, Heape had already acted, calling those who were regarded as the representative of labor to Government House at 10:20 A.M. and instructing them to do what they could to pacify the rioters. A.F. Adderly and Bert Cambridge claimed to have persuaded some of the crowd to return from Bay Street Over the Hill, but when they attempted to speak to a clamorous mob of two thousand gathered on the Southern Recreation Ground, their efforts were countervailing. Confused by the radical rhetoric of Milo Butler and fired by liquor, the crowd shouted down Adderly, called Cambridge a “white man’s pimp,” and physically assaulted the black politician Leon W. Young and the owner of Weary Willie’s nightclub, Leonard White.
From the disorderly meeting on the Southern Recreation Ground, the crowd fanned out, attacking and looting bars, particularly those owned by the white Bethell brothers. When the commissioner of police, Reginald Erskine-Lindop, arrived with an armed detachment of police and soldiers, the crowd pelted them with stones and bottles. Erskine-Lindop read the Riot Act outside the plundered Cotton Tree Inn on Blue Hills Road, but this did not halt the brickbat barrage that hit several policemen and Cameron Highlanders. Though no general order to fire was given, shots were fired in the ensuing melee. One man, Roy Johnson, was killed instantly and six seriously wounded, of whom one, David Smith, died later that day in the hospital. Forty rioters and several of the forces of law and order were treated for minor injuries.
Just after noon, in an atmosphere of deceptive quiet, the police and military and withdrew from Grant’s Town, except for the four junior policemen left at the Southern Station. As the word of the killing of Johnson spread, however, an infuriated crowd of several hundred attacked the police station, burned the fire engine and wrecked an ambulance, broke into the Grant’s Town post office and public library, and went on a rampage of general looting throughout the Southern District. Quiet returned only after all the police and garrison were mobilized, pickets established in a ring around Grant’s Town, and a military curfew declared.
Even this was merely a quiet period. As soon as the curfew ended at 6 A.M. on the following day, Tuesday, June 2nd, a crowd of several hundred laborers and other troublemakers marched to and fro, singling out several specific targets for attack: the white-owned Cole Pharmacy on Shirley Street downtown, the home of a black policeman, and a black-owned shop Over the Hill. A looter shot by the shopkeeper was one of the other three fatalities following from the riots and curfew infringements.
The Duke of Windsor flew back to Nassau as soon as he could after hearing news of the riots, arriving on the evening of Tuesday, June 2nd. He was preceded by a detachment of seventy-five U.S. Marines disguised as military police, seemingly to protect American military instillation by available to support local forces. In the event, they were not required. After consulting with his officials, the Duke confirmed the curfew and the ban on public meetings and added censorship of the press. On Wednesday morning he met with several black leaders, one of whom, Dr. C.R. Walker, using biblical terms, told him that ordinary people, aware of his reputation as a humanitarian, looked to him as their savior against oppression, inequality, and poverty. That evening, the Duke broadcast to the colony, urging calm and a return to work so that wage negotiations could proceed.
The following morning, Thursday, June 4th, more than half the workers reported for work on the Project, and by the end of the week work was proceeding as before.

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